Posted by: Thomas Peschak | September 18, 2009


Island of the Whale Shark Hunters

Manta rays and whale sharks have been somewhat scarce at Hanifaru for the last 10 days, with a combination of rough seas, low plankton concentrations and neap tides the likely culprits for their absence. After a few weeks of thick clouds and torrential rain, the sun is finally beginning to grace the skies again and has kick started the famed productivity for which these seas are known. Across much of the atoll the visibility has dropped to less than 7 m and the water’s greenish tinge indicates it is already dense with phytoplankton. Zooplankton armies are already on the march to feast on the phytoplankton and form the foundations of the manta ray and whale shark food web. In a few days time around the full moon another bout of spectacular mass feeding should be upon us. In the meantime I took advantage of these manta-less days and visited Dhonfanu, a Small Island situated less then 1 km from Hanifaru Bay. Dhonfanu is one of the only two communities in Baa Atoll that has a long history of hunting whale sharks and manta rays. Whale sharks were always the preferred prize with the up to 200 liters of oil in their livers used by the island’s boat builders to seal the hulls of fishing boats (dhonies) from the elements. Manta rays were only targeted when whale sharks were scarce as their livers held far less oil. There is also talk that the leathery skin of manta rays was used to cover Bodu Beru drums, an important centerpiece in many Maldivian celebrations and rituals. The hides of stingrays were definitely a staple, but my hunt for an actual manta ray skin drum or definitive oral evidence still continuous.

The tools of ex-whale shark and manta ray hunters on Dhonfanu Island, Baa Atoll, Maldives.

The tools of ex-whale shark and manta ray hunters on Dhonfanu Island, Baa Atoll, Maldives.

The end of August marks the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month during which the Maldives Muslim population observes a sunrise to sunset fast. I arrived on Dhonfanu when the sun was still a few hours from the horizon, traditionally the hardest time of the fast. Yet despite having gone without food or water since sunrise I was greeted with great warmth and hospitality. My interest in whale sharks and manta rays was met with the island elders promising to show me the implements they used during the hunts. It took some searching through various sheds and coral brick outhouses, but it was not long before they produced a whale shark and manta ray hunter’s tools of the trade. Much to my relief they were blunt and rusty, indicating that no hunt had taken place for a very long time. Armed to the teeth with hooks, knifes and harpoons we headed down to a small beach where two wooden boats, their days of seaworthiness long past, were decaying at the edge of the sea. It was hard to believe that these skeletons of wood and nails were once the platforms for hunting the ocean’s largest fish and ray. The elders then re-enacted a whale shark hunt for me on the beach. _DSC1805©Thomas P. PeschakThe harpooner balancing precariously on the boat of the boat drives a detachable spearhead tied to the boat deep into the whale shark. With the whale shark in tow the boat crew would then try to tire the fish out by rowing as fast as they could to a sandbank at the edge of Hanifaru Bay. They would also insert sharp hooks into the mouth and gills to further slow the shark down. Once exhausted and trapped in the shallows they would begin to butcher the shark with machetes. I was told that they only used the oil, but maybe something got lost in the translation for I would be surprised if the meat went to waste. When whale sharks were caught large tiger sharks also assembled around the sandbank and gorged themselves on the leftovers.

_DSC4973©Thomas P. Peschak copyIn 1992 it became illegal to kills whale sharks in the Maldives and apart from one instance where 4 sharks were reputed to have been killed at Hanifaru in 2002, the old hunters of Dhonfanu have transformed into the some of the staunchest marine conservationist in Baa atoll. In fact a recent socio-economic study by IUCN has shown that this island is amongst the most environmental aware and pro active in the Maldives. In fact some of the old hunters are today making a good living from the tourists that visit Hanifaru to experience the manta ray and whale shark feeding aggregations. One of the most persistent hunters of old is today the owner of a boat that is leased to the Four Seasons Resorts to take guests on manta ray and whale shark safaris, with the boat crew also made up of former hunters. Today for the inhabitants of Dhonfau, whale sharks are worth significantly more alive then dead and the recent proclamation of the Hanifaru marine protected area is sure to result in further economic benefits to the islanders.

UPDATE: The manta rays have returned to Hanifaru so keep a eye out for my next blog update on the forthcoming full moon feeding aggregation.

Manta Ray feeding aggregation at Hanifaru
Posted by: Thomas Peschak | August 20, 2009

Maldives Mantas


My seaplane touched down at last light on August 14th 2009 settling on the choppy waters of Baa Atoll during a welcome lull in successive monsoon squalls. I can’t really think of a better birthday gift then returning to one of my favorite places on earth. Just over a year had passed since I last visited this northern corner of the Maldives to photograph a story on manta rays for the July 2009 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Hanifaru Island, situated at the atoll’s eastern edge is the home of the world’s largest manta ray feeding aggregation and became my most productive photo location of that expedition. Back then Hanifaru enjoyed no protection from fishing and was in danger of being overrun by well meaning tourists. DSC1318©Thomas P. Peschak copyOn World Oceans Day 2009 however all that changed for the better when the waters surrounding the island were proclaimed a marine protected area. The foresightedness and environmental ethos of the newly elected Maldives government, the hard work of Save our Seas Foundation marine biologist Guy Stevens and National Geographic magazine’s ability to reach more than 50 million people around the globe has given Hanifaru’s manta rays and whale sharks a fighting chance to survive into perpetuity.

DSC6136©Thomas P. Peschak SOSF A copyI have returned to Hanifaru on assignment for the Save our Seas Foundation and this time I am principally concerned with documenting the process of transforming this location into a fully fledged and functioning marine reserve. I will also be bearing photographic witness to Guy Steven’s and Dr. Bob Rubin’s efforts to tag 25 manta rays and monitor their movements in and out of the reserve and across Baa and into other atolls. I will be combining the best images of my 2008 season with my favorite images from 2009 to create a book tentatively titled: Manta Rays and Whale Sharks of the Maldives to be published in mid 2010. This book , co-authored by Guy Stevens aims not only to celebrate and reveal the natural history of these two gentle giants of the Maldives, but also to create a lasting blueprint for their conservation and their role in sustainable marine wildlife tourism.

The first few days on location at Hanifaru saw me battle torrential monsoon rains, winds and heavy seas, but these adverse conditions did not appear to effect the manta rays which again have assembled in large numbers to feast on plankton during the full and new moon periods. Their numbers have been slowly increasing since my arrival with around 50 rays on day one and close to 100 mantas on day two. Yesterday I was treated to a spectacle of 150 rays feeding for more then one hour and despite the visibility not being stellar, I nonetheless managed to take one photograph that recorded in excess of 60 large 3 m+ mantas in that one frame. DSC7640©Thomas P. Peschak SOSF AThere was also one whale shark feeding amongst the school of rays, but so far their numbers appear to be lower then last year when I regularly encountered up to 4 feeding alongside the mantas. The records of manta numbers from previous years and the predicted oceanographic conditions had us all convinced that today we would be treated to the largest feeding aggregation of this spring tide cycle. We were expecting schools of 200 + manta rays when we approached the site, but instead there were just a few dozen rays in loose groups feeding on patchy plankton at the edge of the bay. Just when you think you have a handle on the parameters that drive this complex marine natural history event, mother nature throws a curve ball that sends both scientists and photographers back to drawing board. More updates from my 2009 Maldives Manta Season will follow soon.

Posted by: Thomas Peschak | July 8, 2009

Saving Planet Ocean


“Saving Planet Ocean – One Photograph at a Time

Word Press Banner©Thomas P. Peschak

As a conservation photographer and environmental photojournalist I have one single minded mission. I am determined to create photographs that make a difference and change human behavior that is damaging to the ocean. I want my images to educate, inspire, mesmerize and create an appreciation for the fragile marine realm and, in a small way, contribute to safeguarding the world’s oceans for future generations.

_DSC5549©Thomas P. Peschak SOSF LowMy website has been carrying news and field updates for many years now and will continue to be my platform for image galleries and longer essay style features. I hope that this BLOG will become an additional, more immediate tool to share thoughts, ideas and communicate project news conservation concerns and successes.

Feedback and comments are hugely appreciated and I endeavor to answer all e-mails: 

Posted by: Thomas Peschak | June 29, 2009

A blog is born…


A blog is born…

I have been threatening to write a BLOG for a quite a while now, I just haven’t found the time with my manic photography schedule. 250 days a year on the run does not leave much time for anything else and when I have to decide between being behind a camera or a computer, the latter always comes off second best.

Then fate intervened lumbering me with an enforced extended stay in Ajman. If you don’t know where Ajman is don’t feel too stupid, before I became marooned here I had never heard of it either. Ajman is the smallest of the United Arab Emirates, situated about 1 hour west of Dubai towards the Oman border. It has little of the glitz of Dubai and is blessed with a grittier real world feel. It is the height of summer here, 47°C (113 °F) during the day. I also haven’t seen the sun for a while as it has been obscured by sand and dust storms.

DSC_5752 low©Thomas P. Peschak SOSFI traveled to Ajman to spend some time at Asiatic, a printing company that is busy positioning itself as a leader in environmentally sensitive printing methods. It is here where my forthcoming book The Lost World will be printed. My first three books were produced by mainstream publisher so while I was very closely involved in the design, I had nothing to do with the final printing process. While not unhappy with the results I felt that there was room for improvement in the printing quality and accuracy. The book the Lost World is being published by the Save our Seas Foundation thus allowing me full control over all stages from design/layout to printing and binding. The finished title will then be distributed by major publishers/distributors worldwide.

All was going fantastically well until…technical gremlins began to sabotage the process. A flying start soon ground to a halt. I was supposed to have arrived in London yesterday and will now only leave Monday at the earliest. My days are spent alternating between sitting in a windowless air conditioned office and short burst of standing in the printing hall, where the temperature is 30 degrees Celsius (15 degrees less than outside) to make color adjustments and approve each final page.DSC_5974 LOW©Thomas P. Peschak SOSF The staff at Asiatic are amazing and always go way beyond the call of duty! Working with them has been a great pleasure. To finish this mammoth task though we all have at least three 18 hour days to look forward to. No better time to start my blog then!

Printing Update: All printing is now complete and 5 sample copies of the Lost World are at the binders as I write this. I will approve them tonight and then the rest of the print run will be bound. I can’t say thank you enough to everyone at ASIATIC for their dedication and attention to detail. Their  work ethic and enthusiasm are mirrored in the quality of the resulting book.

“Saving the Ocean One Photograph at a Time”